How to Get Published - Part 2
Updated: Mar 25, 2021
Here’s what publishers are looking for in an author.
Last week I wrote about some of the key selling points that agents and publishers look for in a book. If you haven't read it then it's available here. This week I’ll focus on what we want from an author. Yes, being an already bestselling author is a strong starting point because it demonstrates a proven sales record making all conversations from sales to publicity much simpler to promote a new book. But keep in mind not every publisher can afford the advances and marketing budget expected to secure the book of a bestselling author. For every bestselling author there are a thousand debut authors. So this is a post for the rest of us.
Who do you think you are?
So much about publishing has changed in recent years and never has the cult of personality been so significant in making a book sell. Authors often mistakenly think that once they get a publishing deal that’s the job done, they now have a whole team of professionals in editorial, sales, publicity and marketing to make their book a success, but that’s only half the story. The author is now just as much a touchpoint as the book (unless you’re a suddenly famous reclusive like J. D. Salinger) and you need to know how to self-promote as though it’s a part-time or even full-time job depending on how much time and energy can be invested. If publishers see that you not only have a very good sense of how to self market but have successfully built a useful support network and a strong following then they will be more confident in working with you.
But how to get started? First you need to sort out your personal brand. For people without a marketing background this might seem daunting but ask yourself the following questions:
What are my personal, political, and cultural values? We’re all human and people want to interact with other humans, the more open and authentic the better. So figure out who you are, what you stand for, and what messages you’re happy to share about yourself when interacting with people in person and online. People you regularly interact with are far more likely to support your creative work because they feel connected with the source of the book. I can’t count the number of times I bought a book outside of my usual reading habits because I liked the author and their message.
Which communities do I belong to? Think in terms of your identity, your work, your geography, your religion and your hobbies. Ideally pick something about yourself that relates to your book that can be thematically extended to other communities. So if you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community and your book contains queer characters then that’s a logical target readership and it's worth investing some time networking with LGBTQ+ organisations. Or if you work in nature conservation and your book is about trees then develop that network further because there are relevant organisations that might ask you to give a talk about your book even if it's just a work in progress. Find ways to connect with organisations within your community through volunteering or by supporting their work through social media promotion. Reach out to your local bookshop and library - they love meeting local authors (even the unpublished kind). You might also know some literary editors, journalists, bloggers or anyone else who inhabits the book world. Ask them for their support as they may be able to place a review somewhere for your book - every connection counts and no one gets points for modesty in the publishing world!
Learn basic social media skills. Authors need to have a landing page, whether it be an author website or social media page, because you need to be discoverable for readers and by the media. Treat this place as a portfolio of your work and personality. With the rise of social media, the expectation is that authors will be available to their readers. This isn’t to say you need to be interacting with every single person every day (although it does help), but some meaningful engagement is expected and can lead to a widening of your support network. Publishers habitually look up an author’s social media profile to get a sense of who they are potentially working with and how large a following they have to mobilise word-of-mouth promotion and sales.
Who can vouch for you?
If you’re a debut author then you want to convince the publisher that it’s not just you and the editor that enjoy your book, other people love your writing too! You might consider submitting your work for short story prizes or awards for unpublished works. This offers a third party professional perspective on your writing. Publishers are more likely to pay attention if they know you’ve already received accolades and they can use this as a selling point with booksellers.
Another avenue to explore is early endorsements from other authors, the more high profile the better. This is where an agent comes in handy because they might represent other authors or are chummy with agents who represent authors who would be ideal for endorsing your book. An early pre-published endorsement from the right name can make a big difference for a publisher because the book has already been given a stamp of approval by someone in high esteem and when you have one high profile endorsement more are sure to follow.
If these approaches seem out of reach then turn to social media and generate as much ‘social proof’ as possible. Create accounts across the usual platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) devoted to your book, the writing process, your original thoughts, etc. If you can create an audience just waiting for your book to be published then that’s a powerful tool for convincing a publisher that if they sign up your book sales will follow.
It takes a village for a book to succeed and the author is an integral part of that community. Enthusiasm and willingness are essential but you need to back it up with skills and networks that are useful to the publisher.
Be open to the journey
I always say: I’ve never met a manuscript that couldn’t be improved by an experienced editor. As an author you need to let go of ego and develop a thick skin when it comes to killing your darlings - words, plot points, characters and ideas that you love but from an outsider’s perspective don’t really work for the story. It’s tough because authors spend countless hours crafting something they believe in only to hear that they made some choices that don’t benefit the book. If you’re resistant to changing the manuscript then the publisher might not want to work with you.
There have been moments when I’ve offered on a book provided specific changes in the manuscript are made, but the author wouldn’t allow it, so I had to walk away. That’s not to say the author can’t push back on certain points if there’s a logic behind some creative choices, in which case it might be less about cutting something and more about explaining it better in the manuscript. It’s a process of diplomatic negotiations that you’ll need to get used to. If a publisher senses an author is going to be very challenging to work with they may love the book but not want to bother with a difficult personality.
You also need to be adaptable to the publishing process. Going from structural edits, to line edits, to copy edits, to typesetting and proofreading - by the end your book may be unrecognisable from that first draft of the manuscript (and that’s a good thing). You need to rely on the expertise of the professionals around you and be responsive and available to them. Publishing can move very quickly depending on which stage you're in of the process and publishers need to know an author will make themselves available to stay on deadline.
Life in the spotlight
If you're a social butterfly who loves to share stories about yourself and your work then you'll find all of this a breeze. But for those who are more introverted this can be a challenge. Authors often talk about what a strange life it is to write a book in solitude for years at a time and then be paraded out in front of people expected to perform like the host of a television show. Book launches, media interviews, radio appearances, literary festivals, zoom chats, writing features full of your personal opinions - nowadays the publisher really expects you to put yourself out there. As with all things, the more you do it the easier it gets so even before you're a published author start building your online presence, get comfortable talking to strangers, and widen your network. If you come looking like the full package then your chances of landing a book deal are that much greater. Of course a good deal of becoming a successful author boils down to luck but as Benjamin Franklin once said “Diligence is the mother of good luck.”